Robert Fulford called it 'a remarkable glimpse of the underbelly of Toronto,' but the reviews that greeted the publication of Cabbagetown Diary in 1970 were decidedly mixed. The novel's rowdy concoction of grit and violence and rooming-house sleaze had a strongly polarizing effect on its readers. Many admired the frankness of Butler's depiction of a sordid environment, and others deplored the obscenity of the language and the dangerous and careless ways in which his characters behave, bent as they are on downward self-transcendence. But Cabbagetown Diary was undeniably a promising debut by a young writer whose brash tone and pungent subject matter were unique in Canadian writing at that time. The novel takes the form of a diary written by a disaffected young Toronto bartender, Michael, over the course of his four-month liaison with Terry, a naive teenager who is new to the city. Michael introduces her to his friends and his inner-city haunts, to drink and drugs, and to the nihilist politics espoused by some in his circle. With hard-bitten cynicism and flashes of dark humour, Michael relates the vicissitudes of their summer together. This reissue of Cabbagetown Diary includes a biographical sketch by Charles Butler and an afterword by Tamas Dobozy.
Juan Butler (1942-1981) was a Canadian writer who was born in London, England. His three novels are Cabbagetown Diary: A Documentary (1970), The Garbageman (1972), and Canadian Healing Oil (1974). Butler suffered acute disappointment when the latter-the one he considered his best-proved an abysmal seller. In his later years he struggled with his mental health. He died by his own hand, in Toronto, at the age of 38.
Dedicated to "the gang"
Elena, Charles, Roland, Lucienne, Jack
and George (who helped me with the big words)
Allan Gardens, a downtown oasis
There's a jungle in the heart of Metro's high-rise desert.
It's called Allan Gardens-12 acres of pathways, flower beds, fountains and trees-bounded by Carlton, Gerrard, Jarvis and Sherbourne Sts.
The gardens have been there in the city's core since 1860.
There are a number of greenhouses visitors can walk through free of charge including a Palm House with varieties of palm trees, tropical plants, orchids and orange trees.
-The Toronto Telegram
It's my birthday today and it's Sunday too, so I'm celebrating by lying in bed at eleven o'clock in the morning, drinking a coffee, smoking a cigarette, and opening presents nobody gave me. Which is okay by me, since nobody knew it was my birthday today anyway. And besides, the friends I've got wouldn't send me a present if their lives depended on it.
I can see it's going to be hot as hell because already I'm starting to sweat, so when the radio announces it's twelve o'clock, I decide to get up. Half an hour later I'm dressed and by that time I'm really sweating. What did the radio say, 85 to 90 degrees? I know if I don't get out of here soon, I'll melt like a spoonful of sugar in a bowl of cornflakes because even though it's an $8 room, which is pretty cheap even for Cabbagetown, and the toilet down the hall doesn't flood over too often, it's not meant for living in in the summer. Christ, that old sun, as soon as it warms up, turns all these rooms into blast furnaces. You just won't find anybody inside on a hot summer day.
When I step out onto the porch, there's Mrs. Himmel, the landlady, who's about thirty-five years old and looks about sixty-five. She's sitting on the steps with her latest lover, if that word can be used to describe the fat carcass sitting beside her. Between them rests a twelve-pack of beer with ten bottles drunk out of it already. Not bad, considering it's only one o'clock. I step over them and walk up the street. Then I remember my manners and call back "Lovely day, isn't it Mr. and Mrs. Himmel?" which gets a rise out of the old lush, since I know damn well that he's only been shacking with her for a couple of days and will probably dump her by next week. Not that I blame him. The original Mr. Himmel must have really loved her, though. Not only did he marry her, he stayed with her for a whole month before her boozing and yelling and fighting drove him off. That was five years ago, and no man has beaten that record yet, although enough guys have tried.
It's funny that I'm not hungry yet. Hell, I haven't had a bite to eat since last night. I figure it's the weather, so what I'm going to do is take a stroll over to Allan Gardens and see what's happening there. It should take me about an hour to tour the park and by that time my gut should be kicking for a good meal.
Allan Gardens-quite a place to go if there's a lousy show at the movies. It's a slum park, and by that I mean a city block of grass, trees, benches, a drinking fountain and a hothouse beside the public toilets, full of plants and flowers-all that right in the middle of the worst slum in Toronto. The people in Cabbagetown (they say Cabbagetown got its name because the first people to come here were Irish, whose love of boiled cabbage and potatoes is second only to their love of booze) all flock to the Gardens when the midday heat starts driving them out of their grimy little rooms, and by one in the afternoon the place is so full you can hardly see the grass you're stepping on. But even so, it's still better than sitting in some greasy restaurant or frying your feet on the sidewalk.
I live only about a block away from the park, but by the time I get there, my forehead is covered in sweat and fishes could swim in my armpits. Jesus, now I know what Lawrence of Arabia felt like!
And then, what should I see parked on this side of the Gardens but an ice cream truck. I think of cold, creamy Eskimo Pies, and realize that I'm damn thirsty. But when I get there, the truck is surrounded by about ten million dirty kids all yelling at the same time at the driver, who's going mad handing out ice creams as fast as he can scoop them up. Oh well, water's better than nothing. If I don't die of sunstroke on the way over to the fountain.
"Yes, I have sinned, brothers and sisters." That must be Preacher Mouth over there. Hard to tell, though, until I get closer cause there's quite a crowd around him today. "I have drunk myself stupid with cheap red wine .!" It's the Mouth all right. Nobody else has that booming voice, that face like a slab of raw meat, or that belly the size of a barrel. "I have taken God's name in vain-"
Behind him, his wife, a tall, thin woman with shadows under her eyes and a little pot gut, stands glaring at the sinners, holding a placard above her head which reads:
If you turned her sideways, she'd look like a pregnant twig.
"-and fornicated with evil women-"
"Amen," screeches the twig. "Amen," mumbles an old man, no longer able to fornicate. "Amen," echoes a fat woman, wondering what fornicated means.
"-evil women possessed by Satan's lust," roars the Mouth, his eyes threatening to pop out of his head.
"I still do!" roars back a wino who obviously knows what fornicated means. He's sitting with half a dozen buddies under a big pine tree some ten feet away from Preacher Mouth's group of sinners, all drinking themselves stupid out of a giant-sized Coke bottle filled with cheap red wine. They're having a ball drinking that rotgut like it's going out of style and cutting up the Preacher whenever he shuts up to get his breath. Maybe they're having too good a time, for one of them, who hasn't stopped laughing for at least five minutes, suddenly falls to his side and flakes out. The others all cheer. One less mouth at the bottle. I take a good look at him; his face is as filthy and gray as the rags he's wearing, and except for the spit on his beard, you'd never know where his mouth was. Better things than being a bum, I suppose.
"I smoked cigarettes till my soul was black with nicotine!"
I light a fag and watch a couple of old guys playing chess. They're both bent over the board, and looking at them you'd never guess they're surrounded by howling kids, roaring preachers and almost on top of them, a group of Indians yelling out songs at another Indian who holds a guitar in his hands. He has a funny look on his face, and when I get closer, I see it's because he's one-eyed. A real cool, one-eyed Indian. He waits until they all tell him what they want him to play, and then he plays something none of them has asked for. Every so often he lets out a loud "yippee" and the whole tribe echoes him.
A real fat chick, so white it's only by her eyes you can tell she's Indian, starts to dance to One-eye's song, a fast Country and Western, but man, she's so fat that all she can do is shake her big boobs around until it looks like they're going to pop right out of her blouse. That really gets the tribe worked up.
"Go, baby, go!"
"Shake them knockers, honey!"
But, goddammit, they don't fall out, and when the song ends she sits down on the grass, her face and shoulders gleaming with sweat, mouth wide open, breathing in fast, painful gasps, her breasts still bouncing around in her blouse. I feel like telling her not to worry, that even though she'll never make a go-go dancer, the TV could always use her if Flipper got sick. But I don't feel like getting tomahawked by the rest of the tribe, so I keep my advice to myself.
On one of the benches near the fountain a drunk woman is yelling at a passing European family: "You bunch of wops, you think you own the country." A joe sitting beside her puts his hand on her shoulder, hoping to shut her up.
"Take your hands off me, you lousy creep. You guys only think of one thing all the time."
Poor joe, if I was him I'd have put my hand in her yap, knuckles and all. The Europeans (they can't be wops cause none live here in Cabbagetown), all dressed up in their Sunday best, don't even look in her direction. After all, they may not speak English too good, but they got their dignity.
She burps at them and turns towards the joe, who still has his hand on her shoulder. "Hey honey, you got any beer at your place? We can go over there and have a good time."
"We drunk it all last night, baby," he replies.
"No more beer?" She looks as if she's going to cry.
"Well then, take your frigging paw off me, I told you once already." She slaps at his hand and gets to her...